The Career Pyramid: Academia v.s. Industry

Yesterday during a diner with some PhDs from other universities (and one consultant from industry), we came to the topic of career opportunities. One of the first things mentioned was that most PhD students prefer a career in industry over an academic career. To which I responded that it was an effect of the perception of PhD students that industry provides better career perspectives than academia. I believe that indeed some PhD students actually want to go to industry, but some feel ‘forced’ to do so.

Most people agreed, and of course complained that obtaining a post-doc position was hard, and then finding a fixed position was even more difficult…

In our group we have 1 full professor, 2 part-time professors (they work in a company too), 3 assistant professors, 1 scientific programmer, 2 postdocs and about 10 PhD students. I have to make the side-note that until a couple of months ago we had 5 more postdocs, and that currently we have 5 open PhD positions.

This may seem as a rather steep ‘promotion pyramid’: for every 5 phds there is 1 postdoc position, for every postdoc there is a fixed position (as assistant professor) and for every 3 assistant professors there is 1 full professor. 
However, the first thing I should note here is the high variability in the number of PhDs and PostDocs in our group! As mentioned, a couple of months ago we had quite a few more postdocs, and we are currently expecting quite a few new PhD students. This all makes the perceived odds worse. Also note that the three assistant professor functions have been ‘recently’ filled, unless they are promoted or leave, they will keep their positions for quite a few more years to come. Which actually makes the odds worse, in our group.

After quickly sketching the situation in our group, I asked the consultant of the ‘promotion pyramid’ in the consultancy company he works in. He mentioned that there were 3 directors, some 10 to 20 managers and some 200 consultants. I believe this could be correct in general, most ‘healthy’ commercial companies try to have as much people bringing in money, and as few as possible managers managing these people. Looking at the odds there are 10 consultants to a manager and 7 managers to a director.

My argument: the academic ‘promotion pyramid’ might appear hard, but don’t underestimate the ratios in industry.

A brief counter-argument was provided: when PhD students move to industry, they have an advantage over the others with a masters degree (or less).

This one is easily bunked by mentioning that first of all a PhD starts his industry career with no relevant work experience compared to ‘the others’ (e.g. with a 4 year disadvantage).
Secondary: education is in my opinion no proper predictor for career success! It depends on so much more like personality, timing (beeing there when an opportunity arrises) and focussing your skills on those that are important for a promotion.

That killed that discussion nice and swiftly, and we moved on to something else.

Even though I believe the observations are correct (although they are not scientifically supported and my sample set has a total size of 2), I’m going to ignore it. When I’m done with my PhD (which will be June 2014!!! jay!) I’m going to industry. But more because I like the challenge, and it just seems like more fun. Not necessarily for the better career opportunities.

I’m wondering what the career pyramid looks like in your group (academic or company). Please let me know in the comments!!!

TL;DR: career opportunities in academia might seem bad, but industry might not be much better, and your PhD title might not help. (But I’m going to ignore this observation and go to industry anyway :D)  

PS: I strongly believe that we, with our level of education and knowledge, have the privileged situation of choosing jobs that are fun. That’s the main reason why I chose to do a PhD instead of going to industry after my master.